How emojis dominate the world’s chatrooms

Japanese Shigetaka Kurita, the creator of emoji charachters. Kurita sketched out one of the first emojis in 1999 for an early mobile Internet platform. (AFP)
Updated 17 July 2019

How emojis dominate the world’s chatrooms

  • Considered one of the fastest growing languages in the world, emojis are getting more and more popular among different age groups
  • A language expert says while the emoji fad will not die down just yet, it will not replace words

DUBAI: What started as a Japanese invention has taken the world by storm, including in the Middle East where the use of emojis, a modern picture-based form, often features in online and phone texts.

Today is World Emoji Day, marking the rapidly evolving system that some suggest is a “major throwback” to primitive picture-based communication forms.

And the use of emojis in the Middle East has shown how these simple images help to cross language barriers — there’s little confusion over the smiley face, although the same cannot be said for some of the other images.

The culture of emojis has become so significant that a film has been made about them, “The Emoji Movie,” which was the first feature to receive a public screening in Saudi Arabia when the ban on cinemas was lifted in 2018.

The concept was created in 1999 by a Japanese artist, Shigetaka Kurita, to convey information such as the weather and traffic without having to spell out words like “cloudy” or “traffic jam,” for an early mobile Internet platform.

 Big tech firms such as Apple and Google picked up on the trend, which eventually led to its worldwide use.

The use of emojis, like any language, is constantly evolving, and the California-based non-profit corporation Unicode Consortium, the international body that regulates the use of text in digital platforms allowing users from all over the world to view web-based text in different languages and scripts, has devised a system that has standardized the process.

The fad quickly reached Arab and Muslim mobile users, who in 2015 were recognized in a new set of emojis that were culturally relevant to them — the Kaaba, prayer beads known as masbaha, and the flag of the Palestinian territories. In the Unicode 2017 update, the hijab emoji was added, demonstrating how emojis become relevant for different communities.

“Emojis help us express our feelings, in terms of happiness, anger, surprise, shocks and so on. Emojis, right now, are considered a language themselves,” Omar Sattar, a language professor at Skyline University Collegein Sharjah, UAE, said, adding that emojis “sometimes convey more than words.”

“Words are not as effective, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words,” said Sattar, referring to the human inclination to use symbols and pictures to communicate.

Some linguists say that emojis are comparable to prehistoric communication systems, when the first humans carved symbols on cave walls, using them to convey and store information.


Linguist Vyv Evans, writing for the British newspaper The Guardian, suggested emojis were like the Egyptian hieroglyphs, the formal writing system of ancient Egypt.

Today, in an almost 360-degree turn, humans are using pictures again to talk to each other, especially when in 2007 emojis were officially recognized by the Unicode Consortium.

Tech giants Apple and Google then created a separate keyboard for emojis, further normalizing their use. Others adopted it, with organizations such as the EU using in official communications.

“Emojis have become part of our lives,” Sattar said. “We use them on a daily basis. Everybody uses them to express their feelings and emotions. Using them in official communication has become normal, especially when it comes to marketing and customer service. People actually react more when they see pictures.”

He said emojis, now at about 3,000 in number, have become a universal language that “transcends borders,” given that people “don’t have to learn grammar and or alphabets to be able to use emojis, as opposed to an actual language like Arabic or English.”

But Sattar said emojis were not going to replace words. “We have more and more emojis, and it’s going to be very difficult to remember all of these things, what they mean exactly, and how to use them correctly,” he said.

“We also need to remember that different platforms use different pictures — they are not the same. It’s going to be really difficult to remember and memorize all of these different emojis that would sometimes mean the same but would look different.”

Culture plays a crucial role in understanding and using emojis, said Sattar, explaining how one emoji can mean different things to people.

He said although emojis are a modern way of communication, they are still governed by cultural norms and can easily be taken out of context — in some cases to the point where people are jailed.

Reports by UAE dailies Khaleej Times and Emarat Al-Youm said a man was accused of defaming his colleague when he commented on a social media post with a fox emoji. The fox emoji signified cunning, deceit and trickery for the receiver, who filed a case against the sender.

Another problematic emoji in the region is the middle finger, which under UAE law is considered a form of indecent communication and could cause legal trouble for senders or land them in jail.

However, courts consider the relationship between the two communicating sides before giving a final verdict, ensuring there is a genuine intent to offend, lawyer Hamad Al-Debani told Emarat Al-Youm.

There are other emojis that could be deemed offensive in the region, including a number of animals, food and gestures.

Emojis help us express our feelings in terms of happiness, anger, surprise, shocks and so on. Emojis, right now, are considered a language in themself.

Omar Sattar. Language professor at Skyline University College

Since Muslims are prohibited from consuming pork and consider the pig as a dirty animal, the emoji should be used with caution. Dogs are another animal that can be used as an insult or a curse against other people in Arabic.

Emojis of alcoholic drinks could also be seen as offensive, as they go against Islamic traditions. In some Arab regions, the hand gesture where the index finger and thumb form an “O” and which means OK in a number of countries, signifies a threat and warning to the receiver.

In 2015, a virtual keyboard app company, Swiftkey, conducted a study on how speakers of different languages used emojis. They concluded that Arabic speakers use flowers and plants emojis four times more than average, and, are among the least likely to use alcohol-themed emojis.

They are also likely to use fruit emojis, dancing lady in red and stars. The most-used insect emoji by Arabic speakers is the ant, and among the flowers it is the rose.

Despite the early popularity of emojis, they did not always have as much variety as they do now. Between 2012 and 2015, a wave of popular demand for emojis to become more inclusive and representative in skin color and other specifications was on the rise, and Unicode adopted a set of new icons. 

The new update made it possible for users to change the skin tone of some emojis, specifically those that represented people and not just emotions.

There remains a plethora of emojis with cultural significance that are missing from the selection. For instance, although a number of Arabic dishes have an international presence, such as shawarma and falafel, they are still absent from emoji options.

However, Unicode accepts proposals for characters and fonts to be added if a proposal has not been submitted earlier. This means that with each update, the selection becomes more diverse and inclusive.


Al Jazeera continues to ‘provide a platform to bigoted and violent extremists’

Updated 26 May 2020

Al Jazeera continues to ‘provide a platform to bigoted and violent extremists’

  • Qatar-based media network has a turbulent past when it comes to extremist and anti-Semitic rhetoric

LONDON: Al Jazeera’s recent interview with terrorist-designated group Hamas’ leader Ismail Haniyeh, as well as its podcast glorifying killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, has stirred the ongoing debate surrounding the network’s alleged promotion of terrorism.

The exposure given to the controversial figures has prompted experts into stating that the station and news site continue to provide extremists with a platform to present themselves on.

“The fact that Qatar’s Al Jazeera Arabic continues to provide a platform to bigoted and violent extremists, including terrorists, obviously undermines the Qatari government’s claim to be a steady force for tolerance and coexistence,” Washington director for international affairs at the Anti-Defamation League, David Weinberg, told Arab News.

The station’s interview with Haniyeh served as a stage to threaten Israel with the fact that Hamas was still capable of kidnapping more Israeli soldiers, while the podcast allowed the Soleimani character a free rein to explain his support of terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah and why he helped Syrian President Bashar Assad massacre his own people.

These were not the only controversies the network found itself embroiled in this month.

Last week, Al Jazeera’s Arabic news site carried a headline reading, “Martyr shot by Occupation forces in the West Bank for being accused of trying to run over soldiers,” to report on a Palestinian man who was shot while attempting to ram into Israeli soldiers with his car.

“Every time Al Jazeera calls somebody — anybody — a martyr, it violates the journalistic ethic of impartiality. What makes it much, much worse is that Al Jazeera consistently uses the term martyr to glorify terrorists, provided the civilians those violent extremists are trying to murder happen to be Israeli Jews,” Weinberg said.

“Encouraging slaughter of this sort does nobody any favors, not Palestinians or Israelis, neither Jews nor Arabs.”

“Al-Qaeda in Syria? Flattered by Al Jazeera. The Taliban? Flattered by Al Jazeera. Iranian proxies like Hamas and Islamic Jihad? Flattered by Al Jazeera. Al-Qaeda financier Muthanna Al-Dhari? Flattered by Al Jazeera. Media practices like these are unacceptable, immoral, and bad for people of all faiths and all nations,” he added.

Al Jazeera has a turbulent past when it comes to extremist and anti-Semitic rhetoric. Last year, its youth channel AJ+ Arabic drew widespread condemnation over an alleged Holocaust denial video that claimed Jews exaggerated the scale of the genocide in order to establish Israel.

The chairman of UK nonprofit organization Muslims Against Anti-Semitism, Ghanem Nuseibeh, told Arab News: “Al Jazeera has a direct editorial input from the Diwan in Doha (the sovereign body and administrative office of the Emir of Qatar), with the Arabic channel focused on promoting the extremist ideological discourse. This is their core constituency.

“It is particularly troubling that Al Jazeera Arabic website still to this day continues to host articles and videos of interviews by proscribed groups in the UK such as Al-MuHajjiroun, and freely accessible in the UK,” he added.

Earlier this month, a Shariah expert from the Qatari Ministry of Religious Endowments advocated the beating of women in an interview on the network, stating that they “need to be subdued by muscles.” And this was not the first time.

The station has also broadcasted a religious program hosted by extremist cleric Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, the terrorist-designated Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader. Al-Qaradawi, an outspoken Hamas loyalist who was featured in Arab News’ “Preachers of Hate” series, issues fatwas riddled with comments advocating suicide bomb attacks and praises to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler for “punishing the Jews,” on Al Jazeera’s media platforms.

“Al Jazeera’s motto is, ‘the opinion and the other opinion,’ but when it comes to the Muslim Brotherhood’s bigots and violent extremists, Al Jazeera Arabic still just presents one opinion, giving ikhwani (brotherhood) intolerance an unquestioning platform for broadcasting into millions of homes around the world,” Weinberg said.

The media network has also been called a “useful tool” for Qatar’s ruling elite notorious for their sympathies with the Muslim Brotherhood and other terrorist and extremist groups. In 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain severed diplomatic ties with Qatar in order to pressure it to halt its alleged terrorism financing and shut down the network.

US Embassy cables acquired by UK newspaper The Guardian in 2009 proved just how interconnected the Qatari government and Al Jazeera are.

“Al Jazeera, the most watched satellite television station in the Middle East, is heavily subsidized by the Qatari government and has proved itself a useful tool for the station’s political masters … Despite (the government of Qatar’s) protestations to the contrary, Al Jazeera remains one of Qatar’s most valuable political and diplomatic tools,” the cable read.

Al Jazeera tangoes with terrorism

Favoring Daesh

• Do you support the Daesh group’s victories in Iraq and Syria?

• More than 54,000 people voted on the official page of ‘Opposite Direction.’ 81.6 percent voted ‘Yes,’ while 18.4 percent voted ‘No.’

Sectarian discourse 

• Al-Qassim said: ‘Why do you blame the regime? I want to ask you. Al-Nubl and Al-Zahraa are Shiite colonies in the heart of Sunni land. Kafarayah and Fu’aa are still living among you. Why don’t you expel them out as they did to you and curse the ones who gave birth to them?’

Party for a terrorist 

• Al Jazeera host: ‘Brother Samir, we would like to celebrate your birthday with you. You deserve even more than this. I think that 11,000 prisoners – if they can see this program now – are celebrating your birthday with you. Happy birthday, brother Samir.’

Al-Julani interview

• Interviewer: ‘What was the strategy of Al-Qaeda’s Sheikh Osama bin Laden?’

• Al-Julani: ‘He wanted to fight the Americans on their own turf, and that way to drag them into Afghanistan – because we were unable to send armies to (the United States). Sheikh Osama bin Laden’s goal in fighting the Americans was not to put an end to the American presence…’

Boosting terrorism

• ’We call upon the Islamic nation to rise up, and not make do with a futile economic boycott, in the face of this affront to our honorable Prophet. We call upon them to drive out the Danish embassies and ambassadors from the lands of the Muslims, and to expel them from the Muslim countries. They should take serious and immediate action to burn down the offices of the newspapers that affronted our Prophet, and to bomb them, so that body parts go flying, and with these body parts, Allah Almighty will quench the believers’ thirst for revenge.’